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Womanish Black Girls: Women Resisting the Contradictions of Silence and Voice

reviewed by Melanie A. Marshall - April 28, 2020

coverTitle: Womanish Black Girls: Women Resisting the Contradictions of Silence and Voice
Author(s): Dianne Smith, Loyce Caruthers & Shaunda Fowler
Publisher: Myers Education Press, Gorham
ISBN: 1975500911, Pages: 200, Year: 2019
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The authors of Womanish Black Girls: Women Resisting the Contradictions of Silence and Voice present counter-stories that reclaim and affirm Black girls’/women’s ways of being that historically have been life-threatening. The book opens with a foreword from Joy James, who succinctly notes in echo of Audre Lorde (2017) that “this anthology works against betrayals of captive maternals to assert democratic cultures and dignity as universal rights that belong to Black girls/women” (p. xii). The editors open the books with recollections of their own “womanish” girlhoods, setting the stage for the various contributors in the subsequent sections. Though the foci of the authors vary, along with their interpretation of being “womanish,” there is tight alignment in the assertions of Black women’s voicelessness and the journey towards reclaiming it. Undeniably, the included chapters were chosen with great care, creating a mosaic of experiences, intellect, and introspection that promote the importance of critical reflectiveness.

This book’s Introduction, “Three Black Women Remembering Womanish Girls,” opens the collection with vignettes from each of the editors as they recall their earliest memories of being called “womanish.” Weaved within the stories are multiple definitions of womanish, creating space for multiplicity of lived experiences and understandings of the term. Within the vignettes, particular attention is paid to positionality of the co-editors as Black girls and women, making clear how even within Black girl/womanhood their experiences are differentiated. This effectively sets the tone for the remainder of the book, emphasizing that Black girls and women do not exist as a monolith. The chapter concludes with an outline of the collection, which is broken into three major sections: “Silencing Voice and (In)visibility as Black Girls/Women,” “Sexuality, Slut Shaming and Speaking a Black Girl’s/Woman’s Mind,” and “Womanism, Knowing and Being Smart Black Girls/Women.”

Part One opens with a piece entitled “Dare to Break the Silence: My Mother, Myself” from editor Loyce Caruthers. This chapter draws on Dillard’s (2008) conception of “memories” to explore moments from her past that illustrate the silences and contradictions of being womanish. Broken into three scenes that span her girlhood, adolescence, and young adulthood during the post-Brown era of school integration, Caruthers retells her personal experiences and how they were shaped by the cultural histories and knowledges of Black women before her (particularly her mother), and reconciled by way of reflection accompanied by theories of Black feminisms and voice. Whereas prior to this personal exploration it is noted that the scenes shared had been willingly cast aside, Caruthers shares that the unpacking of womanish ways and experiences has the potential to “change our ways of being (culture) and knowing (epistemology) in what we call the present” (Dillard, 2012, pp. 11–12). Notably, this chapter holds great vulnerabilities, and those are amplified by a subtle, yet necessary historical scaffolding.

Chapter Two follows the life and educational experiences of author Valerie G. Tucker, reflecting on how her womanish ways served her in the ongoing battle against false notions of meritocracy. Central to her argument is DeGruy’s (2005) idea of post traumatic slave syndrome, which includes highlighting an individual’s lesser attributes in an attempt to protect them from danger and atrocities. Coupled with growing up between Jim Crow and the Black Power Movement, Tucker speaks candidly of resistance from both her Black community and white counterparts, all the while believing in education as the great equalizer. This chapter illuminates the complexities that lie at the intersection of race, gender, and education, grounding them in experiential, historical and theoretical knowledge. The concluding section discusses her choices in her own daughter’s K-12 schooling and expresses her denouncing of meritocracy while still holding a strong belief in educational capital. The ending, however, feels abrupt, acknowledging misunderstandings of the benefits of womanish tendencies but without any suggestion of forward movement as found from her own experiences.

Chapter Three explores the false conflation of religiosity and spirituality in the Black church and how for author Gloria T. Anderson, a pastor’s wife, her need for acceptance within the church community led to voicelessness. Drawing on Collins’ (1986) idea of the “outsider within,” Anderson shares personal journals during her time of silence, making sense of her journey towards reclaiming her voice and reconciling her identities as both womanish and spiritually connected. This chapter feels autoethnographic in nature, as Anderson deftly observes and analyzes her former selves and their thought processes through her journal entries. She thoughtfully integrates scholarship on biblical interpretation in a way that ascertains her faith while also denouncing the legalism that often colors Black churches. The chapter concludes noting that regardless of religious affiliation or faith, our liberation is found in the embodiment of love and compassion, not rules and regulations.

Continuing into Part Two, Chapter Four discusses the importance of Black women sharing stories of sexual abuse and the liberatory power that lies in Black women’s reclamation of their stories and their bodies. Taking Audre Lorde’s (2007) idea of being “punched in the mouth from the inside,” Fowler recalls how the sexual abuse of her childhood shaped her sexual identity in both her adolescence and adulthood. Throughout the anecdotes that shape this chapter, Fowler addresses the vulnerabilities of her experiences, which in turn set the stage for healing and forward movement and the reclamation of Black women’s bodies and sexuality. This chapter concludes with Fowler drawing a parallel between her young and “seasoned” selves and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) characters Celie and Shug Avery, respectively. This widely accessible connection is a stark reminder of the submissive and powerless stance that Black women are called into by other’s expectations (Celie), and the audacity, autonomy and power that are awakened when they answer to themselves (Shug Avery).

Chapter Five explores Black women stereotyped as “the mistress,” its roots in slavery, and how it has transformed over time through media images. Jeffries and Jeffries make the argument that despite the increasing presence of Black women writers in contemporary television programming, there is still heavy presence and reliance on the mistress stereotype. The chapter highlights three contemporary television shows, Scandal (2012), How to Get Away with Murder (2014), and Queen Sugar (2016), offering a brief analysis of the Black women either reifying or resisting the mistress stereotype. The authors in this chapter describe the sexual encounters and subsequent actions of characters Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating as reducing “educated and competent Black women to desperate, manipulative, broken creatures” (p. 75). Some, however, might argue that the choices of these women to engage sexually with whomever they please, regardless of the social or career outcome, allows them to subvert standards and stereotypes. There lies a fine line between openly enjoying sex and being perceived as licentious. This chapter makes clear that for the Black woman, that line ceases to exist. Closing with a discussion of Nova from Queen Sugar and her rejection of her White policeman lover, Jeffries and Jeffries suggest that there is great need for alternative imagery in the media in order to reshape Black women’s misinterpreted identities.

Chapter Six is an auto/ethnography exploring both the author’s and four other Black women’s experiences with abortion. The chapter is organized into three main sections: methodology, methodological components, and emergent themes, though it reads as conversationally as the data collection was described as being. Brown found emergent themes of abandonment, denial, shame, dilemmas, and resisting stereotypes amongst all study participants, herself included. Given the ethnographic methodological approach, emphasis is placed on the stories of abortion, the histories behind the choices each of the women made, and how for them, terminating their pregnancies was deeply rooted in their identities as Black women. Though informative, the inclusion of methodological components (tenets of embodied theory) feels unsupported, given the lack of a brief introduction of embodiment theory broadly. The chapter’s concluding statements, however, are strong, stating the importance of working both within ourselves and with others in an effort to move towards intimate justice.

Closing Part Two, Chapter Seven focuses on the experiences of P.V. as she’s navigated being “womanish” in different facets and periods of her life. She explores how these experiences have helped her to shape, and at times reject, identity labels that have been placed upon her. Specifically, this chapter narrows in on a particular portion of Walker’s (1983) definition of womanish, which addresses the fluidity of women’s relationships with one another and with men, whether sexually or not. The chapter is broken into five sections that span childhood abuse, sexual awakening, and coming out in the military’s era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Perhaps the most storied of the contributions, P.V. deftly analyzes the shifts in her gendered and sexualized self across time. Readers can see the contradictions of self both within the Black community but also in the larger scale of American culture. The chapter concludes with a brief exploration of P.V.’s sexuality, the nuances of her relationships, and finally settles with her defining herself as “a womanish Black lesbian female” (p. 117).

Part Three, “Womanism, Knowing and Being Smart Black Girls/Women,” begins with Chapter Eight, in which Smith draws on Collins’ (1990) matrix of domination and Cooper’s (2018) metaphor of the sticky web as a way to make sense of knowing and being womanish. The chapter moves through the various elements of Walker’s (1983) definition of “womanish,” imbuing each tenet with recollections of her relationship and knowing of her mother. There is a draw to this chapter as Smith speaks directly to readers, calling not only for our attention, but for thoughtful response. The chapter ends with a discussion of the contradictions of life and how these contradictions are in large part par for the course. Smith shares how in the present day, being womanish has been embraced in the baby girls of her family and how she and her mother have moved past the fears of implication because of it.

In the final chapter, sisters Iesha and Trachette Jackson offer a co/autoethnographic account of their experiences being educated by their mother. Central to this chapter is Abdullah’s (2012) idea of “womanist mothering,” which the authors describe as empowering “Black children to consciously resist oppression” (p. 133). Together, alongside their two other siblings, the authors gathered their recollections of learning from their mother as data for the chapter. The body of this chapter is comprised of two specific accounts that chronicle clear moments of womanist mothering that have shaped the authors’ understanding of themselves as educated Black women in two disparate fields within academe. This chapter concludes with a discussion of reclaiming what it means to be an educated Black woman and the power that comes from sharing our storied experiences.

By giving focus and attention to experiential knowledge, this book will affirm Black women from all walks of life while illuminating the struggles and inequities that they carry throughout girlhood and into womanhood.


Abdullah, M. (2012). Womanist mothering”: Loving and raising the revolution. Western Journal of Black Studies, 35(1), 57–67.

Collins, P. (1986). Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of Black feminist thought. Social Problems, 33(6), S14–S32.

Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cooper, B. (2018). Eloquent rage: A Black feminist discovers her superpower. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Dillard, C. B. (2008). Re-membering culture: Bearing witness to the spirit of identity in research. Race ethnicity and Education, 11(1), 87–93.

Dillard, C. B. (2012). Learning to (re)member the things we’ve learned to forget: Endarkened feminisms, spirituality & the sacred nature of research & teaching. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

DeGruy, J. (2005). Post traumatic slave syndrome: America’s legacy of enduring injury and healing. Milwaukie, OR: Uptone Press.

Lorde, A. (2007). Sister outsider. New York, NY: Firebrand Books.

Lorde, A. (2017). Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Essays and Poems. New York, NY: Silver Press.

Walker, A. (1982). The color purple. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.  

Walker, A. (1983). In search of our mothers’ gardens: Womanist prose. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 28, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23281, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:18:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Melanie Marshall
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
    E-mail Author
    MELANIE A. MARSHALL is a 4th-year doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her scholarship considers Black girlhood and multiculturalism in children’s literature, and literature-based reading interventions in urban schooling contexts.
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